Sociolinguistic background and status

Across the modern-day Arabic-speaking world, Arabic is usually described as a triglossia. In formal usage, there is the distinct, elevated variety of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the language of the state, education, public services and media. Closely related to this is Classical Arabic (CA), the most prestigious register of the language, found in the Qur’an, religious texts and daily worship. In contrast to both these formal registers of Arabic are the colloquial dialects, the everyday languages in which social interaction takes place, and which are usually deemed to be of little value.


Both CA and MSA are written exclusively in traditional Arabic script, and when used in formal speaking, usually adhere to a fixed set of morpho-syntactic norms and phonemes, regardless of the speaker’s own dialect. Colloquial Arabic may also be written using the Arabic script, but deviation from the fixed standards of CA and MSA may occur which reflect some dialect features. In recent years, a hybrid Arabish system using Latin script and Arabic numerals has become widespread, mainly due to increased communication through mobile telephony, social media and the internet using QWERTY/non-Arabic keyboard layouts. Using this system, phonetic dialect variations may be expressed using roman characters, and numbers used for sounds which have no obvious corresponding letter.


The traditional perception of any spoken or written Arabic variety which differs from the higher registers of CA and MSA is somewhat negative. The greater use of MSA in either speech or writing is regarded as more educated and desirable. Dialects are rarely viewed in a favourable light, although their use in popular music, theatre, film and the arts is commonplace and accepted. All dialects are not viewed equally though, particularly Egyptian Arabic, which has been successfully exported across the Arab World via Egyptian films and music, becoming more popular as a result. This attitude towards dialects in general is well-grounded historically, extending back as far as the multiglossia of poetic, religious and spoken forms that existed in the sixth and seventh centuries CE.